Prison reform for female inmates grossly overdue

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In April this year, I spent nearly three and a half weeks at Bronzefield HMP. For a civil prisoner like myself to be incarcerated in a category AA prison, alongside hardened criminals was a real eye-opener. However, I found that there were many women, who had, like me, committed offences that were neither violent nor did they pose a threat to society. And yet, here we all were, rubbing shoulders and indeed sharing cells with women who had killed, had plotted terrorist attacks on British soil, and participated in violent robberies, drugs and guns. Nearly all of us had one thing in common: underlying mental health issues, some of which had gone untreated for many years.

So the recent announcement that the Government had abandoned plans for five community prisons across England and Wales, and instead decided to trial the use of residential centres help female prisoners adjust to life on the outside with help in finding work, and drugs rehabilitation etc seems to be a positive way forward for prisoners and society alike.

The Justice Secretary Michael Gauke cited figures that ‘70.7% of women and 62.9% of men released from custody between April and June 2016 after a sentence of less than a year went on to re-offend within 12 months’ and that there was persuasive evidence that suggested that the new centres could help in reducing re-offending rates. The new centres could also allow mothers to have their children with them while they re-adjusted back to ‘normal life’.

So could these new plans work in helping to reduce the numbers of female prisoners re-offending? It is hard to say. The emotional, psychological and physical impact of incarceration cannot be easily reversed.

Life on the inside is hard enough, but the sheer lack of provisions for female prisoners with mental health issues was simply astounding. In short, there simply wasn’t enough staff at Bronzefield HMP trained to deal with women who were self-harming, harming others and generally trying to kill themselves.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, 26% of women said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody.

25% of women in prison reported symptoms indicative of psychosis. The rate among the general public is about 4%.

The latest figures suggest that 46% of inmates have tried to commit suicide, but the prison system simply does not have the resources or manpower to implement suicide watches for everyone. Once a prisoner has been identified as a suicide risk, they are unable to go anywhere without a prison guard.

I actually believe the figures to be a lot higher. In the space of two weeks, I witnessed three separate suicide attempts, and after each attempt, the prisoner was returned back to her cell with a welfare officer paying a visit a few hours later. The prisoner herself had been sentenced for possession of an offensive weapon after she called the police and told them she had wanted to stab herself. Her subsequent hefty prison sentence disrupted her mental health treatment and set her recovery back many years.

Another prisoner, who had been sentenced for attempting to set alight a man suspected of sexually abusing a family member, had been recalled to complete the rest of her 8-year prison sentence after she was released halfway through her sentence. She had failed to readjust to life “on the outside because no one prepared her for it”. Her three children, all under the age of five when she was imprisoned, will be teens when she is released in two years’ time.

Another prisoner was given 32-month sentence for preventing bailiffs from entering her property over an unpaid council tax fine. Her toddler daughter is being looked after by her now an estranged partner.

There are currently no provisions to help mothers cope with the separation from their children, and the guilt they feel at having to leave their children to be raised by family members. Around 40 % of the women I spoke with at Bronzefield HMP told me their mothers had had to step in and take their children. Those who were not fortunate to have their family members look after their children found that the care system was the only other option available to them.

Bronzefield HMP is one of the few women’s prisons in the UK to have its own mother and baby unit- with space for 12 mothers and 13 babies. It is always full and has a very long waiting list. Female prisoners serve their sentences until giving birth in the main part of the prison, and then once they have given birth, they move into the Unit and can keep their baby with them for 18 months. After that, the child is returned to the outside, to live with either family members or to into the care of the social services. It is quite telling about the length of the sentences given that none of the prisoners or guards that I spoke with can remember a child being returned to the outside while the mother stays inside to complete the rest of her sentence.

There were at least four pregnant prisoners in Bronzefield HMP during my short time there; one heavily pregnant prisoner was given a four-week sentence for driving without insurance and was worried she would have to give birth while inside. Another, who shared a cell next to mine, had been on remand for 7 months and was also weeks away from giving birth. Her continued usage of drugs meant that her place in the mother and baby unit was under review; if she lost her place, she would have to give her child to either her family or social services immediately after birth and return to the prison.

The justice system is simply failing to recognise the impact that long periods of separation are having on the children of mothers currently serving prison sentences despite numerous research papers being published on the matter. In effect, we are creating further generations of damaged children, who will grow into being damaged teens and adults.

Perhaps these new residential centres could help to stem the tide of re-offending. But, here is a radical thought: why don’t we address the sentencing criteria that has resulted in 86% of women being sent to prison for non-violent crimes in the first place? Once we tackle the harsh sentences meted out to first-time female offenders, we can surely resolve the issues around their re-offending much more easily.

Aisha Ali Khan Women United Blog 

Tags: #Womeninprison #prisonmentalhealth #femaleprisoners #femaleinmates #suicidefemaleprisoners #pregnantprisoners #womenprisonermothers

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